Behind The Song: “Kansas City” by Leiber & Stoller

In their own words, the songwriting legends remember the origins of one of the first-ever rock & roll standards

Mike Stoller & Jerry Leiber, 2006. Photo by Paul Zollo/American Songwriter

It’s one of the most famous early rock & roll songs ever, recorded by more than 300 artists and bands, including The Beatles and Little Richard. The songwriters, however, didn’t like The Beatles record of it, for reasons they discuss in the following story.

They wrote “Kansas City” when they were both 19 in 1952. They also wrote “Hound Dog” the same year. “Kansas City” was the first one to become a hit, and their first ever hit. But its emergence as a hit, and ultimately a standard – recorded over 300 times – was gradual. 

Though it became one of the most famous rock & roll anthems ever. like “Hound Dog,” it was written not as rock & roll but as blues. Through a connection, they learned that California blues artist Little Willie Littlefield needed a good blues song to record. Leiber wrote the words,  and Stoller, as always, wrote the music. 

But unlike countless blues records at the time which were “blues shouts” with no real melody, Stoller wanted this one to be distinguished from the rest, and composed a real melody for it, a choice the two songwriters continued to argue about for decades.

They taught it to Littlefield themselves, who recorded it with that melody in 1953 for Federal Records. But Federal’s Ralph Bass changed the name to “K.C. Loving,” which he found stronger. Maybe because of the title-switch, it did not catch on as hoped and failed to become a hit. 

Little Richard recorded it then, and did two entirely different versions of it, one with the melody, and the other at a faster tempo as a shout, which became a hit in 1959.

It was in 1959, some seven years after they first wrote it, that the song with the right tune and title became a hit, as recorded by Wilbert Harrison. It was close to the version first recorded by Littlefield, though had a more compelling shuffle groove, causing its fast ascent up the charts. Soon many other artists and bands recorded it, and it became one of the first ever rock & roll standards. That year alone five different versions all were on the charts, by Littlefield, Little Richard, Hank Ballard (known for writing “The Twist”) and The Midnighters, Rocky Olson and Rockin’ Ronald & the Rebels.

But it was the Wilbert Harrison record that became the biggest hit by far, soaring to the top of the Pop and R&B charts for seven weeks, making it one of 1959’s biggest records.  

The Beatles recorded it in 1964, but based their version on Little Richard’s blues shout record, abandoning the melody, much to Mike’s dismay. He and Jerry spoke about that wrinkle in this story and more during an interview we did in their Sunset Strip office in 2006.

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Wilbert Harrison, “Kansas City”

MIKE STOLLER: [“Kansas City”] was our first big hit. “Hound Dog” and “Kansas City” were both written the same year, 1952, when we were 19. Yeah, I remember very well both of those songs, the writing of them.

I’m not absolutely sure which was first. I do know when “Hound Dog” was recorded — it was recorded in August, 1952, it came out in 1953. “Kansas City” might have been after that, but it came out in December or thereabouts of ’52. There might not have been as long a wait. Cause I remember –

JERRY LEIBER: “Hound Dog,” waiting –

STOLLER: We were waiting and waiting and waiting for “Hound Dog” to come. We knew, if one can know, it was a smash –

LEIBER: In the blues. I do remember how [“Kansas City”] came about. I don’t remember how a lot of other ones came about, but I do remember about that.

There was a blues with a big band that I loved. And it was one of the only blues with a big band that I really cottoned to. There was one song that I really loved, and it was “Sorry, But I Can’t Take You.” “We’re goin’ to Chicago, sorry, but I can’t take you.” I was influenced by that song, and I wanted to have something like that.

So I sang “Kansas City” to Mike like I sang “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.” 

And Mike said, “Yeah, I like that, but I don’t want just a blues shout. I wanna write a melody to that. I want to write kind of a jazz-blues oriented melody for Basie, or someone like that.”

STOLLER: What I said was that I wanted to play a blues –

LEIBER: With a melody-

STOLLER: With a tune, so that if it’s played instrumentally, people will recognize it as that song.

LEIBER: I said, “I want it to be a blues shout. I don’t want it to have a predictable melody, some jazz melody. I want it to be a blues, I want it to be really raw, I don’t want it to be phony.”

He said, “Well, who’s writing the music, you or me?”

I said, “Well, I guess you are.” So he wrote the music, and it became the big standard that it became.

STOLLER: We’ve had a disagreement about everything since 1950. [Laughs]

LEIBER: Our relationship is the longest running single argument in the entertainment business.

But I think out of those confrontations come very good work.

I loved the sound of [the title] syllabically. Kan-sas Ci-ty. Chicago was good, but I liked Kansas City better. Because Chicago is halting consonantly-wise. And Kansas City just rolls out.

STOLLER: And Kansas City was the center –

LEIBER: Of jazz, yeah.

STOLLER: Blues and jazz-blues.

LEIBER: Jay McShann. Charlie Parker. It was kind of an homage from us to Kansas City.

STOLLER: Count Basie put together one of his first bands in Kansas City and had the Kansas City Seven, which had Lester Young. So it was that amalgam of blues and jazz. And Joe Turner –

LEIBER: It was a breeding ground for great musicians.

STOLLER: It was a lot of history of that kind of music.

STOLLER: Even including the argument, I would venture to guess that the whole thing, within 45 minutes to an hour, was complete. Including the argument.

LEIBER: The songs that were tooled and worked on for weeks did not happen that way. “Is That All These Is?” did not happen that way, was not spontaneous combustion. “Hound Dog” was. “Kansas City” was. “Stand By Me” was. “Down Home Girl” was. A lot of things were. A lot of the early blues things would be finished in ten minutes, twelve minutes. At the most, a half hour. 

STOLLER: I wrote the melody on the piano. I didn’t like the Beatles’ record of it because they neglected to sing my melody, the way it was written.

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The Beatles, “Kansas City”

LEIBER: We don’t like the greatest records, the greatest names.

STOLLER: But Joe Williams, and Count Basie, you know –

LEIBER: — were killer.

STOLLER: “Kansas City” was probably written in C. Because at that time I used to write a lot of things in C, because it was easy to whip them off that way. And that was done by Little Willie Littlefield. That was the first record. He was a boogie-woogie blues pianist. And it’s possible that it was in E flat. It may be. We taught the song to Little Willie at Maxwell Davis’ home.

LEIBER: He chipped his tooth on the microphone. Of all the “Kansas City” records, out of all those great stars – Little Richard, Joe Williams, you name it. I think the best take is Little Milton. You’ve got to hear it.

STOLLER: For me it’s Joe Williams.

LEIBER: Well, I mean, it’s Joe Williams for me, too.

LEIBER: It’s really what it oughta be.

STOLLER: The intention. It was, finally, the intention of a real kind of Kansas City blues-jazz feel.

LEIBER: It was stylistically perfect. A lot of people who did it before did it as kind of a country, semi-country version, semi-big city blues. Tiny Bradshaw.

STOLLER: Or dropped most of the tune and just shouted. the Beatles copied Little Richard’s record. The Beatles’ version is good, but it isn’t what I wrote. It doesn’t have the melody that I liked.

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Little Richard, “Kansas City”
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Joe Williams, “Kansas City,” Leiber and Stoller’s favorite version

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